Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Best Things in Life Are Free

The moon belongs to everyone.
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone.
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in spring, the robins that sing,
The sunbeams that shine—they’re yours, they’re mine.
And love can come to everyone. The best things in life are free.

I almost got to spend next week on an all-expenses paid trip to Kenya’s Central Rift Valley, looking at astonishingly cool birds and other wildlife. I’ve spent the past two months studying up on all the birds I might see there, getting excited beyond measure. That trip fell through at the last moment, to be replaced by one to Germany and Austria. I’ll see an order of magnitude fewer bird species, and not a single giraffe, but I’ve never been to Europe either, so my disappointment is well tempered with a brand new elation, excitement, and gratitude.

Black-capped Chickadee

Of course, going to Africa would have been amazing. Several people have tried to console me by saying I can go there on my own, but I made choices long ago—choices I’ve never regretted—to focus my life on fully enjoying home and the places I can afford to get to while working primarily as a volunteer, doing the kinds of things for bird conservation that people who have to toe the line for employers can’t get away with. That’s limited my ability to squirrel away money, and what I did have tucked away I blew on my Conservation Big Year. One of my birding acquaintances had the temerity to tell me that anyone in a first-world country can afford world travel unless he or she has made "poor choices," but I’ve long noticed that many people who guide world travelers or sell expensive equipment have little sense of the actual value of money and of how most of us live.

Even if I won’t get to see them in real life, becoming a bit more familiar with the birds of Africa was an enriching and enlarging experience, seeing birds in northern Europe will be thrilling, and I’m way, way luckier than I was before all this happened. Now that I’m 62, with more active birding years behind me than in front of me, I have more certainty that my personal philosophy of aspiring to live life like a chickadee has been exactly the right one for me. I have equal certainty that it’s not the right approach for most people—in Minnesota alone there are over 400 bird species other than chickadees, and so even if everyone were to live their life like some totem bird, ignoring the huge wealth of other animal species and mythical and real human role models out there, few would choose the chickadee. Chickadees hardly care—they depend on a diverse ecosystem and accept a huge variety of other species into their social flocks, from flashy world travelers like warblers and tanagers to the quiet, serious White-breasted Nuthatches that hunker down and don’t travel at all. I’m not sure which quiet, industrious, intelligent bird my husband Russ would choose as his totem if he were the type who wanted a totem in the first place, but I do know I couldn’t be as happy and fulfilled if it weren’t for him, nor could I survive without a real job if he weren’t heavily subsidizing me along with my photography and birding and radio program expenses.

I don’t feel bad that I haven’t used my education and skills to earn more money—there are clear and obvious costs to idealism, including in my case a very low probability of ever being able to afford trips to Africa, Antarctica, or the Gal├ípagos, but the rewards of following my heart and my conscience have been far greater.


This all flooded to mind Sunday night when I was watching Mad Men. The program has seemed from the start to be about Don Draper’s slow journey from his utterly false identity and his lucrative career in perhaps the least authentic field of all—advertising—toward finding and becoming his authentic self. Bert Cooper, the senior partner in his firm, seemed to view success strictly through the prism of money, foisting copies of Ayn Rand’s books on anyone he was mentoring. In this episode, he died right after watching the moon landing. His last word, after hearing Neil Armstrong’s famous lines, was “Bravo!” And at the very end of the episode, he appeared in a vision to Don Draper, singing and dancing to a 1927 song written by Buddy De Sylva & Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” All I can say is, “Bravo.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

Where are the conservationist hunters of yesteryear?

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse and other members of their family are national treasures, far more important in American history and culture, and for their role in the ecology of their respective habitats, than they are as game birds. Unfortunately, value is seldom judged by intangibles. As the number of hunters continues to dwindle, the Minnesota DNR in particular seems to bend over backward to make the remaining hunters happy, no matter what the cost to our conservation ethic.

The Spruce Grouse is listed as Threatened in Wisconsin, where none can be taken at any time of year. It’s also a fully protected Species of Special Concern in Michigan. Since 2006, Minnesota has listed it as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need, and it has been on the Chippewa National Forest’s sensitive species list since 2004. Yet in Minnesota, a great many are legally killed each year by hunters.

In 2008, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies recommended that states still having Spruce Grouse habitat develop formal surveys for monitoring population change and conduct research on the effects of habitat alterations and hunting. Concerns about climate change causing a northward retreat, along with losses to auto collisions and, in some areas, habitat losses due to mining and other causes, make many people worry about the future of this magnificent bird. But despite our lack of standardized data about Spruce Grouse population trends, from 10,000 to 20,000 are taken each year by hunters in Minnesota. This isn’t many compared to the half million Ruffed Grouse taken each year, but is a significant take when we don’t have any handle on their actual numbers. In the hundred years since the Passenger Pigeon became extinct, we seem to have forgotten how quickly a population or even an astonishingly abundant species can disappear. Fortunately, the Minnesota DNR is starting what sound like some excellent programs for more systematic monitoring of Spruce Grouse, as was detailed in an article in the March-April 2014 Minnesota Conservation Volunteer by Jason Abraham, "A Search for Secrets of the Spruce Grouse." Unfortunately, that article includes some misleading information about the bird's diet, which changes in spring and summer to include a great many plants and berries as the grouse forage more on the ground. This is important, because savvy hunters realize that the birds taste better at the beginning of the hunting season, before spruce needles and buds start to dominate their diet again. Some Spruce Grouse taken by hunters in Minnesota are mistaken for the more delicious and more numerous Ruffed Grouse. It seems a shame to waste an opportunity for hunter education that can help prevent some wasted birds.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Interestingly, the state responded very quickly when Greater Prairie-Chickens started declining, but that was much closer in time to the disappearance of the Passenger Pigeon. In 1923, almost 329,000 Greater Prairie-Chickens were taken in Minnesota, but a mere two decades later, in 1942, that harvest was down to 58,000, and in fear that the species was disappearing, the state closed the hunting season on prairie chickens entirely in 1943. In 2013, a DNR survey found the total number of male Greater Prairie-Chickens in Minnesota in spring at 1,415, or perhaps a few more. Assuming males and females are about comparable in number, the total breeding population would be less than 3,000—far, far less than a tenth of the number harvested in 1942 when it was obvious that the species was in trouble.

Even though prairie chicken numbers in Minnesota are critically low, with the huge swings in numbers each year associated with surveys of tiny populations, a hunting season based on a lottery for special permits was opened in 2006. Participating in a lottery to hunt such a dangerously declining species seems to specifically select for those hunters who don't believe in limiting themselves to taking no more than any surplus population. When searching for population information, I came upon several mentions of the “Minnesota Grand Slam,” when a hunter manages to get a Ruffed Grouse, Spruce Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie-Chicken all in the state in the same year--it was even promoted in that Minnesota Conservation Volunteer article. Why couldn’t they encourage people to set that as a photography goal rather than a hunting goal, when the prairie chicken and sharp-tail are both suffering dangerously low numbers and we don’t know what’s happening with Spruce Grouse numbers?

Ten years ago, Minnesota opened a Mourning Dove hunt 60 years after taking the bird off its list of game species. Never before have we opened a season on a bird whose only real management in the state has been by farmers and people who feed birds. Public comment during the decision-making was heated, with a huge outcry from people who saw no reason to open a season on a beloved backyard bird. The DNR claimed that 30,000–50,000 hunters would try dove hunting, but the actual numbers have been far fewer. The one lesson the DNR seemed to take from the dove hunt public outcry was to prevent public comment the next time they opened a season on what had been a non-game species. They opened a Sandhill Crane season in 2010 without any public input. Even today, May 26, 2014, they're using a Sandhill Crane as the poster child of the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program page for the Northwest Region in the state--the very region in which they are now allowing Sandhill Crane hunting!



The Minnesota DNR has a very active Hunter Recruitment and Retention Program, but does little to nothing to promote its Nongame Wildlife Program short of giving taxpayers the option to contribute via the "chickadee checkoff" on our state tax forms. And by making it clear the DNR's true loyalties are to hunting, even going so far as to redesignate species that were non-game favorites as game birds, they have succeeded in alienating a great many people, including some of us non-hunters who have been huge proponents of the DNR.

I’d recently re-read Joel Greenberg’s book about the Passenger Pigeon, and got a sad shiver of recognition while reading that Minnesota Conservation Volunteer article about Spruce Grouse cited above, in the section titled "Fool Hen." “Reports abound of hunters approaching the birds and knocking them dead with a stick.” It seems we’ve entirely lost the very concept of sportsmanship when our official DNR magazine touts that kind of behavior in 2014.

Hunters voluntarily gave up hunting Wood Ducks in the early 1900s because their population was declining. Thanks to many people, the great majority of them hunters, working to restore habitat, they brought the species back, and Wood Duck numbers continue to rise. Ducks Unlimited has tried to match that excellent record with other waterfowl species, and does wonderfully. This should be the standard for hunter conservation. Instead, today in Minnesota we’re allowing the hunting of vanishing species and providing generous bag limits for species with no solid population data, adding non-game birds to the hunted species as if to make up for the fewer game birds remaining, and actually celebrating how easily hunters can club to death a beautiful bird with a stick. Where are the hunters who earned the sport its reputation for sportsmanship and conservation? And when will the Minnesota DNR recognize that non-hunters are also conservationists, and would happily support them if they gave even the slightest indication that they were listening to us?

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse!

Spruce Grouse
Last year during my Conservation Big Year, I spent a morning with my friend Troy Walters searching for a Spruce Grouse where he often finds them, near Eagle River, Wisconsin. Troy and I had long led a weeklong birding workshop for what used to be called Elderhostel, now Road Scholar, at Trees for Tomorrow, a natural resource school in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Our group never saw a single Spruce Grouse, but we figured they were too shy and retiring for a whole crowd of people to see, and we’d probably have better luck if it were just the two of us, but couldn’t find one. I figured I had bad Wisconsin Spruce Grouse karma, and ended up seeing the only one for my Conservation Big Year in Vermont in October.
Spruce Grouse
This year, Troy has moved on to a new job, and I was extremely doubtful that we’d find the Spruce Grouse—Troy’s the one with the consistent luck—but I set out with the group anyway. The lowland forest area is also a great spot for Boreal Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets, so it was worth a visit with or without Spruce Grouse.
But first thing when we got out of the school bus and started walking down the sandy road into the forested area, one of the sharp-eyed participants spotted a moving bump on the side of the road. Sure enough, it was a Spruce Grouse!
Spruce Grouse
Spruce Grouse
We all got reasonably good looks at what was a lifer for almost everyone, but since we were going to be walking down the road anyway, I figured we might as well do it in a way that would least disturb the bird, which would have the added benefit of our getting even better looks. We were gathered in a clump, and so I suggested we advance five steps and stop again. Every sensible bird sees us before we see it, and knows darned well that we are there, so I kept my voice quiet and calm but didn’t worry about being absolutely silent—birds seem more alarmed when we sneak up on them like predators than when we calmly approach. The ground was soft, our footsteps fairly quiet.
Spruce Grouse
After five steps, we took a bunch more photographs and then advanced another five steps. As we drew closer to the bird, we all worked our way to the other side of the road as well.
Spruce Grouse
The grouse stayed on the ground until we were surprisingly close, and then he just took a few steps into the woods and flew up to a tree right on the edge, where we could get even more photos. Everyone was thrilled, both at the exceptional views the gorgeous bird gave us and at how we’d disturbed him as little as possible as we walked past him.
Spruce Grouse
Spruce Grouse are found throughout the coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska, dropping down where lowland spruce forests are found in the northernmost states in the eastern half of the US and in the mountainous regions of Washington, Idaho, and Montana down into the Grand Tetons. In winter, they feed largely on spruce needles, but as soft vegetation and especially fruits become available on the forest floor in spring and summer, their diet changes. Hunters prefer eating spruce grouse shot earlier in the fall than later, because the meat starts having a somewhat unpleasant taste as the grouse’s diet changes back to spruce needles. These extraordinarily beautiful birds aren’t particularly shy—their nickname, “fool hens,” comes from their regularly allowing people to approach as closely as ours let us, even when the people are armed with guns rather than cameras. Fortunately, Wisconsin lists the Spruce Grouse as Threatened, and it’s a fully protected Species of Special Concern in nearby Michigan, so our handsome and obliging bird should be safe as long as he keeps out of the way of Goshawks and cars. I hope he lives long and prospers.
Spruce Grouse

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Weird Warbler Behavior

Yellow-rumped Warbler The spring of 2014 has been colder than usual, just like our winter was. Birds that winter in the southern states can mosey north with good weather patterns, so can start turning up in north country as early as late February or delay their arrival until much later. This year I heard my first robin on April 7, when there was still some snow on the ground and worms hadn’t emerged yet. The few robins that arrived in April ate leftover mountain ash berries. They didn’t become abundant here until May. Birds that winter in the tropics have no access to The Weather Channel to learn about weather conditions up here. Their timing in leaving the tropics is related to day length, so even in a late spring, they arrive in the Gulf States roughly at the same time each year. Once they are in North America, they can be more flexible, the vast bulk of them moving when night flight conditions are ideal, and then waiting to migrate again until they’ve replenished their body fat. Ideal conditions for getting an abundance of food right when leaves are opening. Leaves just emerging from their buds are exceptionally tender until the cell walls firm up and any waxy protective outer layers on the leaves develop. Hatching caterpillars need this soft food, so they hatch right when leaves are opening, and warblers fuel their migration on this abundant food source. During a year characterized by mild conditions and early leaf-out throughout their migratory range, warblers may start arriving in the north early. This year, spring was a little late as they arrived along the Gulf, but caught up soon enough, and the birds made it to the Midwest before the late leaf-out slowed them down. Yellow-rumped Warbler Even the tiniest warblers that breed up here have to be well adapted to cold temperatures. They can hold in their body heat thanks to their built-in down underwear. The trick for surviving extreme cold is to warm that body in the first place, which is accomplished by the bird’s metabolic furnace, burning the calories in food. Migrants arriving before appropriate food for them is available usually die, either of starvation or from predators when desperately searching for food. Last year we lost a lot of birds during our late, frigid spring. Black-and-white Warbler So many warblers arrived before trees had leafed out that they were searching for food in strange places—many of us got photos of treetop species desperately searching for food on the ground along Lake Superior beaches. Blackburnian Warbler Some warblers kept going by exploiting bird feeders. They’re not adapted to digesting seeds or even suet well, but the calorie boost was enough to tide them over for the duration. Those birds ostensibly survived in good numbers, and broadened their search pattern for food to include bird feeders, so this year gravitated to feeders again. Warblers tend to observe one another as one way of identifying food sources, so when a few Yellow-rumped Warblers turned up at feeders, suddenly others started showing up, too. Yellow-rumped Warbler And so for several weeks, I’ve been inundated with emails from people wondering about the warblers at their feeders. Most of them have been yellow-rumps, for two different reasons. These tend to be among the very first migrants, putting them at risk of arriving before their normal insect food is available, and have the most flexible digestive system. I’ve had as many as 10 yellow-rumps at my feeders at one time. Other warblers may at least check out what the yellow-rumps are eating, and so several other species have also been seen at feeders. In my yard, Black-and-white Warblers and American Redstarts have checked out the feeders momentarily, but by the time I first saw them, leaves were opening and they pretty much stuck to normal food. Yellow-rumped Warbler By May 16, buds were opening like mad in my neighborhood, so unless the weather takes a turn for the worst, the bulk of warblers should be able to get more normal food than they did last year. But now that so many yellow-rumped warblers have figured out bird feeders, we may start seeing them and other insectivores more frequently in our backyards during migration. It’s always hard to predict what birds are going to do, but backyard observations over the next few years should prove interesting. Yellow-rumped Warbler

Endangered Species Day

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

May 16, 2014, was Endangered Species Day. The predecessor of the Endangered Species Act was the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, which permitted the listing of native U.S animal species as endangered and authorized the Secretary of the Interior to list endangered domestic fish and wildlife and allowed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to spend up to $15 million per year to buy habitats for listed species. It also directed federal land agencies to preserve habitat on their lands. The Act also consolidated and even expanded authority for the Secretary of the Interior to manage and administer the National Wildlife Refuge System. Other public agencies were encouraged, but not required, to protect species. The act did not address the commerce in endangered species and parts.

Whooping Crane
In March, 1967 the first list of endangered species was issued under the act. It included 14 mammals, 36 birds, 6 reptiles and amphibians and 22 fish. It included only vertebrates because the Department of Interior's definition of "fish and wildlife" was limited to vertebrates. However, with time, researchers noticed that the animals on the endangered species list still were not getting enough protection, thus further threatening their extinction.

The Endangered Species Act of 1969 expanded protections, but when he was running for president, Richard Nixon said these conservation efforts were inadequate. When elected, he called on Congress to pass comprehensive endangered species legislation. That was back when presidents of both parties tended to assign people who actually understood the roots of problems rather than political hacks to write legislation. And that is how the Endangered Species Act of 1973, signed by Nixon on December 28, 1973, came to be. It was passed by a voice vote in the Senate and by the House of Representatives by a vote of 355–4. Dr. Russell Train led a team of eminently qualified lawyers and scientists in crafting a document that completely changed the direction of environmental conservation in the United States, focusing on ecosystem protection as the fundamental underpinnings of the decline of endangered species. In 1978 in the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court found that "the plain intent of Congress in enacting" the ESA "was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost."

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Most people seem to believe that now that the Endangered Species Act has been in existence for over 40 years, wildlife is well protected, but even before the Act was passed in 1973, commercial interests were trying to gut it. They quickly politicized protections of species many people were unfamiliar with, from the tiny snail darter fish to the Spotted Owl, and a huge concerted effort by powerful interest groups managed to get large sectors of the public questioning the value of the law, making it much easier by 1982 to pass an amendment allowing developers to damage habitat of even critically endangered species with few repercussions. Meanwhile, it became harder and harder to get species listed that hadn’t already been listed back in the 60s before legal protections were strengthened by the Endangered Species Act.  Indeed, a few species that have declined by over 90 percent since the 60s, including both species of sage grouse and both species of prairie chickens, are still not listed as endangered. This week, Bob Dole of Kansas derided the US Fish and Wildlife decision to list the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as threatened under the act. It’s been clear and obvious to birders, ornithologists, and game managers that the species is on a clear path toward extinction right now, and except for the political pressure by the energy industry and developers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, the species would be getting the legal protections it deserves. Tragically, Americans are less aware of the plight of disappearing species in our own country than they are of the plight of polar bears and pandas, so there no longer is the political will to protect our wildlife that there was in the 1970s, and opponents of species protection are both richer and more politically powerful. The way things are going, it’ll be a miracle if the act survives the next 40 years. And the future is even more in doubt for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Friday, May 16, 2014

Scale Insects and Passenger Pigeons

Scale insects on my orchids

Right now, one of my orchid plants is suffering from a scale insect infestation. I’ve been trying to keep it under control without resorting to pesticides by holding the plant under warm water as I scrape the nasty things off. I can’t say I’ve had the least bit of sympathy for the insects even though I’ve killed hundreds—maybe even thousands.  I see them as an enemy horde, not as individuals.

Mother and babies

People seem to think the same about rodents, pigeons, and other animals we consider pests. But I think there is a world of difference between what’s going on in a scale insect’s mind and what’s going on in a pigeon’s or mouse’s mind—or at least I hope so. I was thinking of that in light of an article published in Nature last week about mice feeling stressed when near male animals or humans, apparently set off by pheromones associated with testosterone. When I was a little girl, grownups setting out mouse traps assured us that rodents can’t feel pain, and when I took college psychology in 1970, we learned that mice and other animals don’t feel pain or any emotions whatsoever—that nothing they do is motivated by pleasure or fear or a sense of fun. The books said that every behavior is a simple response to a stimulus that is invariably somehow entwined with food or sex. I’d had many pets as a kid, including a 13-lined ground squirrel named Sammy, and lots of white mice, gerbils, and hamsters. I could feel deep in my bones that these animals all had feelings and could be stressed or upset by things. I was bewildered that people as smart as psychologists and ethologists had such limited understanding of animals. Really, how could animals not share at least some measure of intelligence and emotion with us, considering how much of our DNA and biochemistry they share?

Red Squirrel

But the ability to deny the existence of emotion and pain and intelligence to animals does simplify our lives. As omnivores, we humans eat a lot of animals. Mice and squirrels getting into my house’s insulation and wiring have caused a few serious problems over the years. Reckoning with the value and validity of each individual creature that dies for our nutrition, safety, or comfort is a heavy burden for a sensitive soul. It’s far easier to deny that they feel pain, have feelings, or are unique individuals. I’d like to think those scale insects I’ve been slaughtering are at the lowest levels of awareness and don’t know what hit them when I wash them off my plants. But as we move up the evolutionary ladder to vertebrates, and particularly to warm blooded vertebrates, that assumption gets harder and harder to make, unless we’re indoctrinated as children to close our eyes to our evolutionary roots.



This is hitting me strongly as I re-read Joel Greenberg’s book about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. He dispassionately recounts the many ways people slaughtered unimaginable numbers of them . People killed far more than they could eat or deal with—some of the slaughter methods involved setting whole woodlots and forests afire or chopping down trees containing many nests, and many of the scorched or crushed carcasses weren’t even picked up. There were times when the birds were killed in such huge numbers that their value was less than the cost of the ammunition for killing them. At the time, few people believed it was possible to hunt the world’s most abundant land bird entirely to extinction, and for most people today, even those who believe that the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction was horribly wrong, the individual pigeons didn’t have value. Certainly what was unconscionable was the excessive hunting beyond sustainable levels, but like us and every other creature, Passenger Pigeons were individuals, each doing what it could to survive on this planet. People say extinction is forever, but so is the death of each individual. That is something to ponder as I wash those scale insects off my orchids.

Passenger Pigeon

Monday, May 5, 2014

Nesting Black-capped Vireos

Photon in the Wichita Mountains

I was in western Oklahoma for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival the last weekend in April, and then headed a bit further south to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. That’s long been one of my favorite places on the planet, and it also was a favorite for my dog Photon. She died on April 7, and I decided I’d bring some of her ashes to this lovely place that made her so happy. Photon and I had spent several days camping in the Wichitas in May 2007, during a wonderfully wet year, when the entire area was cloaked in magnificent blossoms. I took my favorite photo of her on a field covered in Mexican Hats.

  The flowers were spectacular!

Little Dog on the Prairie

 Now much of Oklahoma is in the midst of an extended and long-standing drought, and it was a bit earlier in the season, so flowers were few and far between on April 28. I’d left Woodward, in northwestern Oklahoma, at mid-morning under heavy cloud cover, and arrived in the Wichitas in early afternoon to a gorgeous blue sky dotted with puffy cumulus clouds.

  Wichita Mountains

Wichita Mountains

 After picking my campsite, I headed to my favorite spot for Black-capped Vireos, where Photon and I had spent a lot of time, in hopes that the first vireo might have arrived. Last spring I was in the Wichitas a couple of days later, and a young male was singing up a storm, establishing his first territory.

  Black-capped Vireo

 I hoped I’d run into him again. I reached the spot, and found a lovely patch of yellow flowers for Photon’s ashes.

  Flowers where I left some of Photon's ashes

 The moment I gently smoothed the ashes on the ground beneath the flowers, a Black-capped Vireo started singing.

  Black-capped Vireo

 He sang just a few songs, and then ducked into a thicket right near the flowers. Soon I spotted both him and a second vireo—a female. This guy was an unbanded adult—exactly what my male from last year would now be, so although it's impossible to be certain, there’s a better than even chance that this was he. Both he and the female were gathering nesting materials.

  Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

 He sang only a few times during the two hours I was there, and seemed to wander farther away from the thicket where the nest had to be than the female did. She tugged at strands of spider silk, and wadded up bunches of it to carry back to the thicket.

  Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

 I took lots of photos of her. The male came into view several times, too.

  Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

 Another male turned up on the territory briefly, long enough that the nesting male sang several songs in a row, but once he seemed sure that the other male had gone, my guy started gathering nest materials again. I’d not had a chance to observe many females before, and it was thrilling to witness this moment in a mated pair’s life cycle, in the process of bringing brand new Black-capped Vireos to the planet. I was in the perfect place at the perfect moment, and could think of Photon without crying for the first time since she died. I spent a couple of hours with the vireos and then went to my campground. I was in the same spot, or close to the same spot, I’d camped with Photon in 2007.

  My campsite in the Wichita Mountains

 That time it rained almost every evening. This time I fell asleep to Chuck-will’s-widows and nighthawks.

 I stopped by the vireo spot again in the morning. This time a photographer was there—a refuge guide had told him it was a good spot for seeing them. He was listening for songs and hadn’t found the birds yet—like most people, he didn’t realize that singing rates ebb and flow at specific points in the nesting cycle. Males sing most before they attract a mate and then again once the nest is built and the female is incubating. I explained this and showed him where to watch without blocking their path to the nest site. Then I left him to enjoy them in the quiet loveliness I’d had the day before. It was time to head home.

  Flowers where I left some of Photon's ashes

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Last October, I got an email from John Kennington in Oklahoma, inviting me to speak at this year’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma, which takes place during the last weekend of April. Of all the birding festivals on the continent, this was the one I’ve most badly wanted to attend, so I was elated. As of the festival, I’d been on the planet for exactly 3,260 weekends starting on the Sunday on which I was born, and of all those weekends, this wonderful birding festival ranks in the top ten.

 Swainson's Warbler

Part of what made it so wonderful is that I was in Oklahoma—one of my favorite states of all. Everyone I’ve met in Oklahoma has been warm and friendly, and the birds are utterly splendid. Three of my favorite birds are localized Oklahoma specialties—Swainson’s Warbler in the southeast, Lesser Prairie-Chicken in the west, and the Black-capped Vireo in the middle. 

Black-capped Vireo

And one of the most splendid birds in the universe is ubiquitous just about everywhere in the state from spring through fall—the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. How could I not be in love with Oklahoma?

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

My perfect weekend started at 3:30 am on Saturday, April 26. I’d been staying at the Northwest Inn in Woodward, and we were leaving promptly at 4:30 to go to a prairie-chicken observation blind on the Selman Ranch. This is something I’ve yearned to do ever since I discovered how much Sue Selman, the owner, has done to protect the chickens on her land and to get the word out to other landowners about how wonderful this bird is and how to help it. She's been one of my real heroes. 



She has portable blinds set up that each accommodate 2 or 3 people, and she can set them wherever the view is best while not disturbing the birds. I’ve seen Lesser Prairie-Chickens twice before, but never from such close range. I was absolutely thrilled.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Prairie chickens are in steep decline, primarily due to habitat loss, and we lose more quality habitat every day as more people sell or lease their land for energy production or allow cattle to overgraze it or convert it to farm fields. Despite all Sue’s hard work, her property is edged in a few places by wind farms—and prairie chickens and other grassland grouse simply cannot abide vertical structures, including trees, oil jack pumps, and wind turbines, within their view, especially when engaging in breeding or nesting behaviors. Prairie chickens and sage grouse are tasty birds that are fairly easy for hawks and falcons to take; the vulnerable grouse may well associate vertical structures with hawk perches. This is why agricultural and energy interests have lobbied heavily and spent enormous amounts of money to oppose the listing of these birds for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The only way their numbers could possibly be restored to even a tiny fraction of historical numbers would be to restore large swaths of healthy prairie grassland.

And even as their habitat dwindles, leading to inevitable declines, Lesser Prairie-Chickens suffer additional and avoidable mortality. Hunters and falconers can still legally take them in some states even though they’re clearly not “harvesting the surplus population” when there is no surplus population when a species is declining. And more individual prairie chickens die in collisions with fences than any other single cause.

Unnecessary fencing should always be removed to protect grassland species, especially grouse, but when it can’t be removed, a simple and inexpensive, albeit labor intensive, alternative is extremely effective at protecting birds. Marking fences every 2 feet or so with white plastic pieces, about the size of credit cards, reduces kills to virtually nothing.

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I was thrilled that after a lovely time watching the birds on the Selman Ranch displaying, and then eating a delicious breakfast at the ranch house, we were taken to a stretch of fencing and asked to put a couple of handfuls of those plastic markers on the wires. It was fast and easy, and made a perfect end to the morning, allowing us to do a little thing to help ensure that these gorgeous birds could continue their spectacular courtship long into the future. It was a great morning, with another one to come.

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One of the special activities offered for photographers participating in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival was a trip to a lek where a few dozen Lesser Prairie-Chickens are still present and display surprisingly close to the blind. I couldn’t imagine getting better looks than I had on the Selman ranch, but what the heck?

In order to see displaying prairie chickens without spooking them, you need to arrive before first light so the birds won’t know you’re there. The blind for this trip was further than the Selman Ranch—all the way in Canadian, Texas, in the Panhandle, and so we had to leave earlier, meaning I had to get up at 3 am. But the thrill of seeing prairie chickens easily overrides sleepiness for me, so on both mornings I woke up by myself 5 minutes before my alarm went off.

The photographer’s blind is large enough to accommodate 5 or even 6 people, but the day I was there, it was just me and one other guy named Harald Miller. He had rented a ginormous Canon 800-mm lens for the day, so he positioned himself in a corner where he could point the lens out either of two windows. I picked a spot right in the center. Within minutes of getting all set up, while it was still quite dark, we started hearing the chickens gathering. Greater Prairie-Chickens make a low, hollow booming sound with their air sacs as well as lots of chattering squawks and other sounds. Lesser Prairie-Chickens don’t make those booming sounds, but their chattering is quite thrilling even before the birds can be made out in the murky darkness.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Female prairie chickens come to leks to choose the most vigorous males—the ones most likely to produce genetically superior young. They seem to pay particular attention to the first males to arrive in the growing light—not only are those males likely to be strong and powerful, but the females can choose their favorite, mate with him, and get out of the open lek area before hawks are on the wing. Sure enough, the only female I got a photo of came and left well before sunrise.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken hen

The overcast skies made the light soft and pleasing at dawn.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

When the sun finally did come out, the prairie chickens looked utterly glorious. I mostly focused on one male who was defending the territory right outside my window. I got to watch him eating, resting, and displaying.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

A different cock would periodically walk in from the right. I surmised that he was one of last year’s young by the fact that he was slightly smaller and his pink air sacs were tinged with yellow.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

He was fairly easy for my bird to chase off. The bird entering occasionally from the left seemed more an equal. The two faced off at the borders of their defended space frequently. Occasionally they’d come to blows, but they were quite literally playing chicken, and often one bird broke the stare down and just retreated back within his own territory.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

But sometimes they both jumped up in a flurry of wings and waged a battle that lasted just a few seconds. I had trouble predicting these battles—I couldn’t perceive any slight change that triggered one, so didn’t manage to catch much with my camera. A female turned up at least once that I could barely see from the corner window, but I was rooted to my own window and my one special male, so I didn’t even try to photograph her. Harald Miller had signed up for the photographer’s package for all three days, so he could be sure of getting at least one good morning, and he said this was the best of the three. He moved around in the blind more than I did, and when he was photographing from my other side, he let me hook up my camera to his 800 mm lens—I got some amazing close-ups with it. After an hour or two, the birds started spending time eating and loafing as well as displaying, but when one would spot another, it would instantly get into display mode.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

I took over 3,000 photos of the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, and also got a few shots of Horned Larks and a cowbird.

Horned Lark

Brown-headed Cowbird

The prairie chickens spooked just once all morning and were back within two or three minutes. I was spellbound for four hours—not the least bit ready to leave—but finally, some time between 9 and 10, they all suddenly took wing. That was the end of their display period for the day. After we packed up and closed up the blind, we got to see pronghorn antelopes on the way out. Could the day possibly have been better?

Pronghorn Antelope


I’m getting to enjoy the whole thing all over as I process my photos, which I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. And there were plenty of other cool field trips and great birding spots as well. I had an especially lovely time at Boiling Springs State Park, where a Barred Owl flew out at mid-morning, and I had some of my best looks ever at a few territorial Louisiana Waterthrushes. On one field trip, the participants even found a few Evening Grosbeaks!  That LesserPrairie-Chicken Festival is one of the most splendid experiences I’ve ever had in my 62 years. I can’t wait to return.